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Water softeners may not drastically ease eczema symptoms for children, a study finds

February 15, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times
  • Soft water didn't substantially ease symptoms for children with eczema, compared with a control group that used hard water.
Soft water didn't substantially ease symptoms for children with… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Some people who suffer from eczema swear by their water softeners, saying that softer water lessens the severity of symptoms, such as itchiness. But a study finds that for children with eczema, installing a water softener didn't provide much benefit after three months.

The 12-week study, released Tuesday in the journal PLoS Medicine, followed 336 children age 6 months to 16 years old with eczema who lived in areas of England with hard water. About half had water softeners installed in their homes and followed their usual eczema care routine, while the others continued using hard water and carried on their normal treatment.

Eczema severity among the study participants was measured at the beginning of the study, during it and afterward. Researchers were also looking for secondary changes, such as how much the children moved during the night (an indication of sleep loss and itchiness), how much topical corticosteroid they used, and their health-related quality of life. Although the families were aware if they received a water softener or not (softened water makes more soap suds), the study observers didn't know who had a water softener.

The two groups showed no significant differences in changes in eczema symptoms. The group with the water softener showed a 20% improvement after 12 weeks, while the group without the device showed a 22% improvement. Generally, no substantial differences were seen in the groups for the other changes. However, some parents said they noticed some minor health benefits from the softeners.

"Our research had already shown that eczema is more common in primary school children living in hard water areas in the UK compared with children living in soft water areas," said the University of Nottingham's Hywel Williams, a study co-author, in a news release. "No one really knows why, but it could be because hard water contains high levels of calcium and magnesium, leading to increased use of soaps which can act as skin irritants. We would have been happier if we had shown a clear benefit of using water softeners. However, that is not the case, and we need to face the truth."

Although the water softener industry was involved with the study (they provided information and supplied and installed the devices), the release maintains it had no influence over the study findings.

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